Musings, observations and the occasional insight, as we wrap up the NFL’s ridiculously eventful divisional round weekend ...
• Peyton Manning’s underwhelming playoff legacy has been largely defined by the phrase "one-and-done." He has endured a mind-boggling nine first-game eliminations in his postseason career, in 14 playoff trips. That’s an NFL record no one would ever care to hold, certainly not a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback who will go down as one of the best to ever play the game.
But in the wake of his latest early exit from the postseason -- the Broncos’ stunning 24-13 loss to the No. 4-seeded Indianapolis Colts -- one-and-done could take on a whole new level of meaning for No. 18.
After the dismal way this season ended for him and the Broncos, it’s no longer unthinkable to ask: Is Manning done? After three years in Denver, has he already turned in the best work he’ll ever produce for the Broncos, and is his level of play finally starting to show irreversible signs of slippage?
On Sunday at a shell-shocked Sports Authority Field, it very much looked that way, didn’t it? Manning, who turns 39 in March, looked every bit of his age, and suddenly there are so many questions and so few answers in Denver. Physically Manning doesn’t seem right, and who can really say if it’s just the toll of another long season, or the cumulative effect of a career in decline, reaching its inevitable conclusion?
After this bitter disappointment, will Manning even still care to return for the 2015 season in Denver? Will the Broncos ask him back for a fourth year, at a $19 million salary, having already paid him $58 million for three superb seasons, with his 38-10 regular-season record thrown into sharp contrast by his 2-3 record in the playoffs? Could this be the time to start re-tooling for the Broncos, with the potential of offensive coordinator Adam Gase leaving for a head coaching opportunity and key free agents like Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Terrance Knighton to re-sign? And who for certain knows the exact fate of Denver head coach John Fox in light of this weekend’s developments. Change could be a rather large theme for the Broncos this offseason and into next year.
It suddenly feels like it might be over for Manning in Denver, with the team's Super Bowl window of opportunity closing and its championship quest still unfilled. After all the hope and anticipation of a late-career second ring for Manning, pulling his own version of John Elway’s act in Denver, all that was accomplished were two divisional-round dismissals at home to lower seeds in 2012 (Baltimore) and '14 (the Colts), and last year’s Super Bowl run, which ended so disastrously in that 35-point blowout loss to Seattle in the Meadowlands.
Sunday represented perhaps the final indignity, with Denver being fairly well handled by the very Colts team that Manning once led and all but owned. And it had to sting a little extra that he was outplayed by Andrew Luck, the third-year quarterback who made him expendable in Indianapolis, the city he thought would be his only NFL home. With the juxtaposition of his arch-rival, Tom Brady, and the Patriots going to their ninth AFC Championship Game next week, Manning must now cope with a ninth galling one-and-done playoff run (no other quarterback has more than four in the Super Bowl era).
Tonight, even the chicken parm won’t taste so good in the Manning household, because he was that off his game against the Colts. He overthrew a slew of passes (as many as eight according to ESPN’s account), averaged just 4.6 yards per attempt (26-of-46 for 211 yards), and was just 6-of-21 (29 percent) on throws longer than five yards. He had one touchdown, and lost a fumble, and struggled repeatedly on third downs, completing just 5-of-14 passes in that key situation.
Manning's embarrassing playoff record can in no way be sugar-coated. Yes, he earned a Super Bowl ring with the Colts in 2006. But he’s now 11-13 in the postseason, the most defeats by any quarterback in NFL history, and he’s lost five of the past seven playoff games he’s appeared in, being knocked out of the tournament in one game in '10, '12 and '14, as well as his '09 upset Super Bowl loss to the Saints. Manning has managed to lose three of his most recent five playoff games played at home, and both of his latest Super Bowls. Though his teams were favored in 11 of the 13 playoff games he’s lost -- including Sunday’s -- Manning’s propensity to play his worst when the stakes are the highest is a huge and significant chapter in his record-breaking career.
And all those negatives just got reinforced and underlined one more time. Will it be the last time we see Manning play in the postseason, or anywhere for that matter? All those questions will take time to be answered. But for now, where Manning and the Broncos go from here is anyone’s guess. If Sunday was it, and Manning is finished, it’s somehow appropriate that the end came with another of his trademark early playoff exits.
• Watching both Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo play through pain at times on Sunday, you got the feeling that the really big winner in the NFC on this day was Seattle, even though the Seahawks won their divisional round game Saturday night against the visiting Carolina Panthers.
The top-seeded Seahawks would not have been drawing a healthy opposing quarterback no matter who won the game at Lambeau Field, but Rodgers especially was gimpy in dealing with that calf injury in Green Bay’s gritty 26-21 comeback win. And obviously it’ll be an uphill climb to think Rodgers will be fully recovered in another seven days when the Packers take the field in Seattle for the NFC title game.
Rodgers was near heroic in the second half against Dallas, rallying Green Bay from a 21-13 third-quarter deficit, with the Packers scoring the game’s final 13 points. He finished 24-of-35 for 317 yards, with three touchdowns, despite not being able to plant firmly on his sore left leg. Rodgers didn’t have a fourth-quarter incompletion against the Cowboys, and completed his final 10 passes of the game for 163 yards and two touchdowns.
Can the Packers hang with the Seahawks in Seattle? Maybe for a while. But in the end, the score will probably wind up fairly close to the 36-16 final in Week 1, when the Seahawks kicked off the 2014 regular season and the defense of their Super Bowl title with a throttling of Green Bay at CenturyLink Field. Marshawn Lynch rumbled for 110 yards and two touchdowns in that game, and he’ll be a key cog for Seattle once again against a Packers defense that took a step back on the run defense front against the Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray (123 yards) on Sunday.
By now, Green Bay has to be tired of facing NFC West teams in the playoffs. San Francisco eliminated Mike McCarthy’s talented team in each of the past two postseasons, and now the Packers face perhaps the most daunting task in the NFL -- winning in Seattle -- in order to get to their second Super Bowl in five seasons.
• I do believe in karma. And that’s why seeing the Cowboys lose in gut-wrenching fashion on a controversial rule named after a future Hall of Fame Lions' receiver is somehow entirely fitting, on the heels of last week’s officiating debacle against Detroit. Anyone happen to get Calvin Johnson’s reaction to the Dez Bryant call?
• Timing is everything in life, and Mike McCarthy can appreciate that today better than ever. The Bryant catch call that he challenged via replay with 4:06 left in Green Bay’s win over Dallas on Sunday? When it was overturned, it gave McCarthy his only replay challenge victory of the entire 2014 season. He had been 0-for-6 before that red flag.
Nothing like making it count, Mike.
• I detest everything about the Calvin Johnson rule and how complicated and difficult the NFL has made it to discern a legal catch in recent years. But by the letter of the law as it is currently written in the league, Bryant didn’t complete the sensational catch he appeared to make near the goal line on Sunday in Green Bay.
I wouldn’t like it either if I were a Dallas fan, because Bryant certainly looked like he caught the ball as far as the eyeball test. But that’s what the NFL has bargained for in making the rules so convoluted. Here’s hoping the outcry from this latest controversial officiating call involving the Cowboys in the playoffs prompts the league to address simplifying the catch rule. It’s a source of embarrassment for the league that such an elemental part of the game continues to frustrate fans, players and coaches alike, without improving or clarifying the calling of a game.
• The Patriots played a very demanding game at home against Baltimore, winning 35-31 on Saturday. If the Colts defense shows up like it did in Denver -- with the Broncos held under 20 points for just the second time this season -- it could be a closer game than many expect. But I think New England has too many weapons for Indianapolis to contain, and I’ll be picking the Patriots to win by double-digits.
• Given their defensive supremacy, and their always potent Beast Mode-led ground game, if the Seahawks are going to get quarterbacking like this out of Russell Wilson for the rest of the postseason, we might at well just hand them the Lombardi Trophy now and save ourselves a lot of time and energy.
With Wilson three years into a career that’s still on the ascent, anyone out there still think he is cut from the game-manager mode as a quarterback? Wilson threw for three touchdowns and was 8-for-8 on third-down passing in Seattle’s 31-17 conquest of Carolina on Saturday night, and all three of those scores came on crucial third downs.
Wilson threw for 268 yards against the Panthers, with 199 of those picked up on third-down passes. His 149.2 passer rating was the fifth-best in NFL playoff history. And he continues to make it look almost easy, making every throw with great precision, while continuing to pose a dual threat with his legs that keeps a defense honest.
I have thought for weeks now that we’re headed for a New England-Seattle Super Bowl in Arizona, and after this weekend, I’m more convinced than ever that the Patriots and Seahawks belong in the elite class in this year’s postseason.
• Luck continues to steadily climb the ranks of elite NFL quarterbacks, and he’s taking his Colts team along with him. As a rookie in 2012, the No. 1 overall pick led Indianapolis to an 11-5 record and a wild-card berth, but lost in one-and-done fashion to the Ravens on the road. In '13, the Colts won the AFC South, went 11-5 again, and won a first-round playoff game at home against Kansas City, before losing at New England in the divisional round.
And now, this year, the next step has been successfully navigated. Indianapolis again went 11-5, again won the division, and this time has strung together a pair of playoff victories, beating the Bengals at home last week in the first round and knocking off the No. 2-seeded Broncos on Sunday to earn the Colts' first trip to the AFC title game since 2009. By winning at Denver, Indianapolis notched its first road win in the postseason since upsetting the Ravens in the divisional round of '06.
More importantly, the Colts’ win against the Broncos serves as a stark vindication of owner Jim Irsay’s decision in 2012 to cast the team’s lot with Luck and bid farewell to Manning, the most popular player in franchise history. As of Sunday, that move has been a clear-cut winner. Luck wasn’t flawless, but he completed 27-of-43 passes, good for 265 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions, producing the signature win of his still nascent career.
• I covered both the Buccaneers and the Vikings for a combined 10 years when they were in the old NFC Central, and I can’t remember ever seeing the late-season turf look worse at Lambeau Field than it did on Sunday against the Cowboys -- at least between the hash marks. It was seriously chewed up, and almost looked like the Packers generated some extra revenue by holding a dirt track race between the hashes at Lambeau Saturday night.
I’m pretty sure that’s against league rules.
• How about that side judge who ruled that Cowboys tight end Jason Witten made the first down on a catch in the final minute of the first half, when in reality Witten was later ruled via booth replay review to be two yards shy -- two yards! -- of the first-down marker? If he’s one of the league’s best side judges, it may be time to re-think the "all-star" crew system used to staff the NFL playoffs.
I’ve covered the league for 25 seasons now, and I’ve never seen a more egregiously missed spot. It’s not even close.
• This bears repeating, but what worked in New England’s favor on Saturday in Foxboro may work against the Patriots next Sunday night in the AFC Championship Game: Bill Belichick’s teams in New England are now 10-0 in the playoffs against teams they didn’t face in the regular season, like Baltimore this year. But when the Patriots draw the rematch of a regular-season meeting -- as they will in facing Indianapolis, whom they beat 42-20 in Week 11 this year in Indy -- New England’s playoff record under Belichick falls to a mediocre 9-8, and just 4-8 from 2005 on.
• Julian Edelman on Saturday tied Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton with one career playoff touchdown pass, and I find it to be perfect symmetry that Edelman’s 51-yard bomb to fellow Patriots receiver Danny Amendola came on this weekend of all weekends. Edelman’s pass, the first throw of his NFL career, is now the longest scoring pass by a non-quarterback in NFL playoff history, beating out running back Dan Reeves’ 50-yard half-back option touchdown toss to Cowboys receiver Lance Rentzel in the epic "Ice Bowl" NFL title game of 1967 at Lambeau Field.
Dallas and Green Bay hadn’t met in the playoffs at Lambeau in the 47 years since, at least until they renewed acquaintances on Sunday, with the Packers again winning.
• You can’t say Amendola without saying Amen, and I bet by Saturday night the Patriots gave thanks for signing the ex-Rams receiver in the spring of 2013. He was supposed to be the new Wes Welker, but things haven’t worked out quite as planned for Amendola in New England, thanks to a mixture of injuries and ineffectiveness.
But against the Ravens, the diminutive Amendola came up huge, producing three of the game’s biggest plays with pressure-packed catches. His 15-yard scoring catch in the second quarter tied the game at 14-14, and he was again the guy the Patriots turned to in the second half, when he gathered in that bit of trickeration from Edelman and scooted into the end zone to make it a 28-28 game with 4:20 left in the third.
Amendola had one more clutch moment on stage against Baltimore, and it came midway through the fourth quarter, with the Ravens leading 31-28 and New England facing a 3rd-and-6 from the Baltimore 44. Tom Brady went back to Amendola in the left flat, and the wideout got exactly the necessary six yards to keep the Patriots’ go-ahead touchdown drive alive. Amendola finished with five receptions for 81 yards and his two scores, tripling his output of touchdowns for the entire season (he had just one in the regular season). If nothing else, Saturday’s much-needed showing vindicated his signing in New England.
• It got understandably lost in the shuffle with the Ravens' narrow defeat, but first-year Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak had a sensational night with his play-calling in Foxboro, consistently keeping the Patriots' defense off balance. He had one ill-considered 3rd-and-1 end-around to receiver Michael Campanaro, but otherwise Kubiak put on something of a clinic in the game’s opening three quarters or so.
The Ravens scored four touchdowns on their first seven possessions, and three of those drives were 70-plus yards, with Baltimore averaging 7.2 yards per play. The Ravens scored two first-quarter touchdowns after going the previous five games without a first-quarter touchdown. On those two drives, Baltimore only had to convert one third down.
• Stats are for losers, and victory erases all problems to some degree, but wasn’t this supposed to be the best Patriots' defense we’ve seen in at least 10 years? Not against Baltimore it wasn’t. The Ravens scored 31 points, the most New England allowed all season at home (where they’re 8-1), and there wasn’t anything special about the Patriots' pass defense, which allowed four Joe Flacco touchdown passes in Baltimore’s first seven drives.
New England’s defense steadied itself after the Patriots trailed 28-14 in the third quarter, but the shaky game by all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis and the less-than-stellar run defense were obvious liabilities for most of the game. Revis didn’t look like the missing piece of the puzzle on Saturday, he just looked missing his usual shutdown game. He entered Saturday having allowed only two touchdowns and committed a mere three penalties in the regular season. But against the Ravens he had a holding call, a pass interference flag and surrendered a nine-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to Ravens veteran receiver Steve Smith.
New England’s run defense was gouged for 136 yards on 28 carries, and I didn’t notice much quality work by defensive tackles Vince Wilfork, Chris Jones, Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga. The interior of the Patriots' offensive line got blown off the ball on plenty of snaps, with Baltimore’s Justin Forsett gaining 129 yards rushing, much of those up the middle. New England showed impressive grit with the comeback win, but there is some work to be done on defense.
• The Patriots are going to their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game, and this will be the third time they’ve played host to the game in that span. That’s now tied for the second-longest such streak in league history, trailing only Oakland’s five consecutive trips to the AFC title game from 1973-77.
But sustained success like that certainly hasn’t produced a bonanza of success for most of the teams in the same neighborhood as the Patriots. The Raiders of the 1970s won just one Super Bowl (after the '76 season) despite going to those five conference title games. The Eagles (2001-04) made only one Super Bowl in that span and lost in that lone appearance. The Bills, of course, went to four Super Bowls in a row from 1990-93 and went 0-for-4. Dallas earned one ring while going four times in a row from 1970-73, and then did much better when a later version of the Cowboys went four years straight, from '92-95. Those Cowboys won three Super Bowl titles in that four-year run.
The Patriots have lost in the last two AFC Championship Games, to Baltimore and Denver, and lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl following the 2011 season.
• The Colts’ strong performance surprised me, but I don’t give them a great chance to keep their magic carpet ride of a postseason going next week in Foxboro in the AFC title game. The Patriots have beaten Indianapolis five times in a row, including that thorough 42-20 pasting at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 11. That was the Jonas Gray, four-touchdown, 199-yard rushing game for New England, which prompted a certain national magazine to put the little-known Gray on its cover.
• I’m sure it hurt to have their unforgettably wild ride end, but the reality is the Panthers were playing with house money anyway in this year’s playoffs. After being 3-8-1 in the first week of December, everything was gravy from the time Carolina climbed back into playoff contention in the woeful NFC South.
And there’s plenty to like about the Panthers, who got valuable playing time for seven rookie starters in the course of going 4-0 in the season’s final month, making the postseason as a rather unlikely 7-8-1 division champ. To still be as close as trailing 14-10 in the third quarter at Seattle was an accomplishment on Saturday, and the Panthers have every reason to be proud of the way they didn’t mail it in this year, even after they went more than two months without a win.
The Panthers need a speed receiving weapon for Cam Newton to utilize, and still have to figure out Greg Hardy’s future in Carolina -- if he has one. But coach Ron Rivera saw a season that was spinning out of control end on a very upbeat note, and there’s plenty reason to think the Panthers aren’t done making playoff runs.